Rush’s Hemispheres: 35 Years Ago Today

Wow, 1978 was a long time ago, eh?

I still vividly recall procuring this one on compact disc (!) on the last day of school, in 1987 (!) back when CDs were still trickling out, one by one. And at the time, it was already a “classic”; not even a decade old. Yikes.

But let’s give it up for a band who, while Disco raged and Punk roared, and Prog Rock was already deep into its death-spiral, was just getting started. Indeed, Hemispheres represented at once a summation and a point of departure for what Rush had been trying to accomplish throughout the ’70s.

Check it:

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

(The last words on all-things-Rush, according to me:

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.)

For a lot more on what they had done, check this out.

For a lot more on what they did next, check this out.

For a lot more on their masterpiece, check this out.

For a lot more about why the band was rightly inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, check THIS out.

For more about what makes Hemispheres so amazing, all these years later, stop, look and listen to what is right below these words…

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Selling The Stories Of Our Lives: Technology and Privacy (Part Three)

THE PRICE OF ONLINE PAYMENT

The final frontier, at least for now, where online interaction and privacy may or may not find practical synergy is mobile payment. Predictably, the convenience and cost-saving possibilities are prompting serious discussion as well as intense debate. For anyone late to this party, there is already technology being implemented that enables consumers to make credit card transactions on their smartphones.

Advocates for this progressive capability claim it’s simply the next logical step toward increased consumer freedom. Many of us already conduct business online, whether it involves purchases at Amazon.com or maintaining a Netflix account—just to mention two of the more prevalent options. And just as digital files have made compact discs more archaic and e-Readers threaten to supplant paperbacks, online banking accounts have made the act of writing a check antiquated. All of these advancements incorporate convenience and reduced costs. The caveat is that the final costs might not be measured in dollars and cents.

A simple Google search will quickly reveal plentiful stories exemplifying how easily technical glitches can expose credit card information, and how simple it is for sophisticated hackers to infiltrate the typical firewalls. We will be hearing—and seeing—a great deal more about the viability, and potential repercussions, of online mobile payment. Once again consumers are obliged to ask themselves what types of exposure they might tolerate for the sake of expediency.

Almost three-fourths (74%) of online adults are concerned or very concerned about the security of any financial transactions they may conduct online. This level of trepidation extends to all age groups and income brackets: across the board at least 70% of respondents indicated a high level of concern regarding the prospect of purchases or banking online.

Every day new articles appear attempting to negotiate the increasingly complex matrix of potential pros and cons. The early adopters represent one end of the spectrum while the unconvinced and skeptical characterize the other. But what about the majority of us, who fall somewhere in between these two extremes? And how many people will be influenced as more anecdotes (the good, the bad and especially the ugly) become publicized?

Between growing awareness of how—and how much—personal data is collected and utilized, with Facebook’s awkward PR spectacle this summer being the first firestorm and the expected onslaught of consumer pushback, a groundswell demanding accountability is inevitable. A more transparent explication of policies and SOPs will be a welcome, if overdue development. It also seems safe to suppose, not unlike the recent environmental or auto-safety incidents (BP and Toyota), it will require some sort of calamity to get the public’s attention, finally compelling pro-active accountability from the companies.

IS LEGISLATION INEVITABLE?

It is not exactly a stretch to see where some of these open issues are headed, and how they may ultimately be resolved. The question for now is: is legislation necessary and how effective can it possibly be? Certainly, if companies are slow or reluctant to fully disclose their business practices as they relate to data capture, there will be a concerted push to create and enact new laws.

This will make businesses bristle, but it should also make consumers wary. With general sentiment toward government at a nadir, the prospect of entrusting politicians to wrangle with these issues is not exactly consoling. And then there is the proposition of a clichéd “Big Brother” in charge of overseeing this bounty of personal detail. Put bluntly, the one thing some Americans may fear more than unregulated corporations is a feckless government with good intentions.

As usual, one way to troubleshoot the possibility of a legislative imbroglio is to review where we are and how we arrived here. Considering the regrettable fact that few people inside the corporate bubble fully grasp the nuances of Internet technology, it is unrealistic to imagine many (if any) of our politicians having an adequate handle on how things work—much less being able to cultivate a balance between the entrepreneurial spirit and consumer rights. On the other hand, the Internet—in its myriad manifestations—is a massive component of the U.S. economy. As such, it behooves tech firms to view these challenges as a potential opportunity to engage and foster a meaningful dialogue.

According to Mike Shields, a Republican political strategist with almost two decades of experience inside (and outside) the Nation’s Capitol, the people most affected by policy (e.g., the tech firms) have been very slow to recognize how powerful and important Washington, D.C. is. In other words, despite the caricature of an incompetent, money-spending monolith, the not-so-simple reality is that all these moving parts making our laws are empowered by actual people responding to what they see and hear from other people (e.g., voters).

“Having spent a good amount of time in and around Redmond, I know there was a bit of a disconnect,” Shields says. “There was a propensity to regard D.C. as archaic, and that the tech companies were too busy creating the future to get involved in any meaningful way with government.” Inevitably many companies discovered, too late and to their chagrin, that government really does matter. “Now people are coming to realize that they need a presence,” Shields suggests. “But a big roadblock remains trying to explain (to politicians or laypersons) how some of this technology really works in the first place.” Whether through outreach or pro-active lobbying efforts, tech firms will only be assisting their causes by connecting on a more human level. “What can happen,” Shields warns, “is that a simple law, especially one brought about due to a situation that resonates emotionally, can derail an entire business model.”

Right now, there has not been a critical mass, as enough emotionally-resonant crises have not (yet) taken place. If, or really, when this happens, action will occur. Helping craft sensible legislation through communication and transparency is a viable way to ensure we see regulation that integrates the needs of businesses and the rights of consumers.

THE SOLUTION TO TECHNOLOGICAL CONCERNS? TECHNOLOGY!

Even with the most well-intended and competently administered legislation, we must reluctantly concede that superior hackers can—and will—easily circumvent new restrictions. Understanding that any move to empower an ostensibly benevolent federal agency can—and will—result in consternation, we must ensure that the effort to control a small issue does not create a massive one.

One reasonable and equitable proposal could involve a concerted effort by the FTC to implement a public awareness campaign. Certainly a proactive endeavor from an “official” player might very well provide the not-so-gentle nudge certain companies require to share their business dealings a bit less begrudgingly. Naturally, if consumers and businesses meet in the middle and utilize autonomy and entrepreneurship it might equate to a much better case scenario. If we see more business models inspired to empower consumers, many of these potential roadblocks might be seamlessly bypassed.

One such start-up, San Francisco-based Bynamite, was recently profiled in The New York Times. “There should be an economic opportunity on the consumer side,” suggests Ginsu Yoon, the company’s co-founder. “Nearly all the investment and technology is (presently) on the advertising side.” Bynamite’s business model is both a commentary on the current landscape and a predictor of where it’s headed. That is, the mining of personal data is here to stay; there is simply too much money at stake to imagine otherwise. Yet the precepts of a (more) free-market arena enable—and insist upon—an exchange based on a monetized or incentivized quid pro quo. In a potentially paradigm-shifting twist, Bynamite is less focused on privacy protection and more interested in consumer choice and control.

In July the company launched software that users can download, which tracks what sites are collecting (from them). The software provides a cutting edge opportunity for consumers to see, and appreciate, in real time precisely what types of personal information they are essentially “swapping” every time they visit certain sites. “In a few years…a person’s profile of interests could be the basis for micropayment or discounts,” Yoon predicts. “A media company, for example, might charge a monthly subscription fee of $10 for news or entertainment programming, but offer it for $8 to those who exchanged their (portfolios).”

This business model seems to balance the current (and potentially future) poles of strictly—and federally—enforced privacy control and the unconstrained access companies presently enjoy. It is conceivable that a win/win scenario might unfold wherein consumers use the one-two punch of awareness and advocacy, while advertisers can increasingly fine-tune their targeted ads.

FIFTEEN MINUTES OR FOREVER: EVERYONE IS A CELEBRITY NOW (SORT OF)

Anytime you are talking about the future, it is irresponsible to express certainty, particularly when it relates to the ever-changing nature of technology. Nevertheless, it is quite evident that we will be seeing and hearing a great deal more about the delicate issue of privacy. In fact, the prediction here is that it will be a cover story in a major magazine within the next two years.

On a micro level, the conversation inexorably circles back to the basic, but occasionally contradictory notions of autonomy and access: we want quick and free content, but what are we willing to exchange for it? Perhaps more to the point, what should we be willing to exchange? The crux of the matter will increasingly be concerned with personal data susceptible to advanced algorithms and cookies that actually mine all manner of data that Internet users are mostly unaware of. The initial indifference is primarily due to lack of awareness: the only people likely to remain disinterested about potential implications are those to whom nothing has happened—yet.

On a macro level, this debate provides some fairly fascinating insights into how our social norms progress. Of course they are always in some state of transition (for better or worse, depending on whom you ask). The Internet, among many other things, has irrevocably altered the way we interact with the concept of celebrity. Instant and unending access has fed our collective appetite for information and intimacy; we “know” people in ways that were simply unimaginable less than ten years ago.

Now, along with the success and ubiquity of reality television, our culture has gone from worshipping to manufacturing celebrity. Recalling Andy Warhol’s infamous claim that “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”, the Internet in general and social networking in particular have ensured that some of us may have even more than fifteen minutes. No matter how banal of momentous, deliberate or unintended, these moments will all be preserved in the electronic ledger, potentially forever.

How we process and eventually regulate the exchange and deployment of this information will be a commentary on how we are able to exist—as employers, employees, parents, children, friends, acquaintances and enemies all with the data to contradict or redefine any of those public (and private) personas. The idea that people have different identities outside of work, whether they are teachers, executives or attorneys, will become more acceptable the more we collectively accept—and adapt to—a ceaselessly open window into the lives of others. The greater challenge is likely to remain how we reconcile the increasingly unfettered access those we know, and especially those we do not know, have into our own lives.

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RUSH HOUR

4/18/2003: today is the day mein froinds!

Rush is officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight.

I’ve written quite a bit about one of my favorite bands, most recently HERE and, in chronological order, HERE, (a deep dive into 2112) HERE (a deep dive into Moving Pictures) and HERE, (a deep dive into Permanent Waves) and they are appreciated several times in this long piece HERE! (a look at the best progressive rock songs of all time).

Here are some tidbits that make a case for their greatness, and elucidate why this coronation is sorely overdue:

Based on any number of criteria, including albums sold, influence cited (recall the range of artists who stood up to be counted in the excellent documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage), and by virtue of creating one of the seminal albums of the modern era, Moving Pictures, Rush has always been a no brainer. And that has long been the sticking point: brains have never been the strong suit of the style-over-substance crowd holding the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

There are few folks who can claim, at least with any credibility, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are not amongst the most musically proficient players in rock history. Indeed, their craftsmanship was too often used against them, especially in the early days. Like certain bands that prospered in a certain decade, they made too much music. The so-called critics who did—or do—refuse to acknowledge the compositional brilliance and execution of tracks like “La Villa Strangiato” or “Xanadu” are not unlike the clueless emperor in Amadeus, who complained that there were simply too many notes.

One consistent and irrefutable observation of prog-rock bands is that there is little or no levity. The bands seldom smile, have no sense of humor, and don’t even put their faces on album covers! If ever a band could be credited with not taking itself too seriously, it’s Rush. Anyone who has been to a concert, heard an interview, or read any lyrics (at least post-1980) understands that Rush has self-effacing wit to spare, and are downright silly compared to virtually any other prog-rock band (and by silly we mean the intentional sort). If recent, visual evidence is necessary, get a load of THIS. These guys are amazing human beings and, after four decades, they still clearly love each other.

And for all the ridicule some of Peart’s lyrics rightly receive (The Necromancer! Snow Dog!), his body of work stands proudly alongside anyone (yes, anyone) who has put ink to paper in the service of pop songs. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” as the band’s first decade wound down and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can—and should—remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for the aforementioned “holier” trinity . (In fact, for the balance of the ‘80s Peart’s lyrics were seldom less than impressive and more than occasionally incredible).

Perhaps the best way to measure, and appreciate Rush’s credentials is to consider how far they came from where they started. Like an athlete honing skills each season, Rush evinced remarkable improvement each year, leading to those “all-star” years commencing with 1980’s Permanent Waves. Afterward, as much as any act, Rush capably bridged the chasm between prog-rock’s flameout and the onset of MTV. (To see where they went in less than a decade, check THIS and then THIS.)

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.

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Time Stand Still: Why Rush Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

First things first. Just because Rush is finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it doesn’t mean that institution is not still problematic for reasons too numerous—and obvious—to require elaboration (Hint: Look who’s not in. Now look at who is in. Draw some conclusions).

Put another way, it’s not necessarily the bands, like Rush, that have thus far been denied so much as so many of the middling acts that have been admitted that made this particular delay such an affront.

Based on any number of criteria, including albums sold, influence cited (recall the range of artists who stood up to be counted in the excellent documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage), and by virtue of creating one of the seminal albums of the modern era, Moving Pictures, Rush has always been a no-brainer. And that has long been the sticking point: brains have never been the strong suit of the style-over-substance crowd holding the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

Rush’s induction will spare us the spectacle of so many uncool and cast out acolytes storming the Hall like By-Tor on Bastille Day. Think of all the time and energy this simple act of justice has freed up now that veterans of the chat-room wars no longer have to rail against the power windows that be.

Full disclosure: I once wrote a college paper analyzing the Utopian impulse in Rush’s late-‘70s albums (the “Holy Trinity” that comprised 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, which was in turn followed by the holier trinity that includes Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals). (See “Emotional Feedback on a Timeless Wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves”, and “Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece”.)

Assuming there will be haters and party-poopers who reserve the right to protest any kudos coming Rush’s way, let’s evaluate the evidence. There are so many angles to attack this from, that fact alone makes a fairly credible case. For starters, Rush tops a very short list of bands that have managed to stick together for 40 years.

Conversely and, for my money, compellingly, had Rush happened to be a short-lived band that put out Moving Pictures bookended by Permanent Waves and Signals—before a tragic toboggan incident claimed Geddy Lee’s life—Rush would have been first ballot material. Certain acts do themselves no favors by sticking around, just as certain acts get idolized all out of proportion based on a furious combination of potential, wistfulness and what-ifs (Exhibit A: Nirvana).

True, for most objective fans, it has been a long series of inconsistent efforts since (insert album here). For this writer, the last album that fully satisfied was 1989’s Presto. On the other hand, there are people not even born in the ‘80s who have jumped on the bandwagon upon hearing one of the albums released during the last quarter-century.

Their most recent effort, 2012’s Clockwork Angels has generated the most positive press the band has received in ages, proof positive that they can have a meaningful impact even as they approach sexagenarian status. The point being, Rush has continued to create new work and convert new fans over the course of multiple decades. In terms of longevity and relevance, this fact is more than slightly astounding, and all but a rock ‘n’ roll anomaly.

Perhaps instead of listing more of the pros, we could consider the alleged cons, many of which apply to prog-rock bands in general and are, not surprisingly, epitomized by Rush.

There are few folks who can claim, at least with any credibility, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are not amongst the most musically proficient players in rock history. Indeed, their craftsmanship was too often used against them, especially in the early days. Like certain bands that prospered in a certain decade, they made too much music. The so-called critics who did—or do—refuse to acknowledge the compositional brilliance and execution of tracks like “La Villa Strangiato” or “Xanadu” are not unlike the clueless emperor in Amadeus, who complained that there were simply too many notes.

One consistent and irrefutable observation of prog-rock bands is that there is little or no levity. The bands seldom smile, have no sense of humor, and don’t even put their faces on album covers! If ever a band could be credited with not taking itself too seriously, it’s Rush. Anyone who has been to a concert, heard an interview, or read any lyrics (at least post-1980) understands that Rush has self-effacing wit to spare, and are downright silly compared to virtually any other prog-rock band (and by silly we mean the intentional sort).

Incidentally, and ironically, U2 take themselves much more seriously (and are much more insufferable) than any prog-rock sourpuss—with the possible exception of ELP. Naturally, Bono and the boys are worshipped by Rolling Stone, the same publication that until 2008 couldn’t be bothered to put Rush on a single cover.

But… Ayn Rand!

Okay. For the first few albums after Peart assumed writing duties (Fly By Night through 2112) the lyrics range from earnest to embarrassing, but it’s the fleet fortune hunt with Rand that, somewhat justifiably, dogged the band forever after. Acknowledging “the genius of Ayn Rand” in the liner notes is never going to win over many literate or discerning listeners (much less critics), so Rush became guilty by self-inflicted association.

Never mind that the accusations of being reactionary (misguided) or fascist (ludicrous) did not sensibly apply to a song cycle based on a future without music. Indeed, Peart & Co. have spent decades pointing out (quite credibly) that the material of 2112 had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements.

And for all the ridicule some of Peart’s lyrics rightly receive (The Necromancer! Snow Dog!), his body of work stands proudly alongside anyone (yes, anyone) who has put ink to paper in the service of pop songs. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” as the band’s first decade wound down and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can—and should—remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for the aforementioned “holier” trinity . (In fact, for the balance of the ‘80s Peart’s lyrics were seldom less than impressive and more than occasionally incredible).

Let’s go to the audio tape: Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last 33 years. His love of language (the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art are a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. As one decade ended Rush had already made history: as another one commenced they were fully prepared to produce work that remains resilient—and relevant.

But…that voice!

Okay. Even if one concedes that the music and the lyrics are top-notch, there is still Geddy Lee’s voice to get around. It seems to be a love/hate proposition (not unlike what many people experience with Neil Young and Tom Waits, to name two of the more popular polarizers in rock circles). Is it that upper register that throughout the ‘70s often escalated to a shriek what repels people (especially women)? Is there something to be said about a band whose songs and attitude could not be less “alpha male”, and whose singer sounds like a woman, having the smallest female fan base of any prog-rock entity?

Perhaps the best way to measure, and appreciate Rush’s credentials is to consider how far they came from where they started. Like an athlete honing skills each season, Rush evinced remarkable improvement each year, leading to those “all-star” years commencing with 1980’s Permanent Waves. Afterward, as much as any act, Rush capably bridged the chasm between prog-rock’s flameout and the onset of MTV.

Discussion of Rush’s catalog calls to mind the way entirely too many people talk when (or if) they talk about jazz: strong opinions abound, and it’s soon revealed that the dissenter has listened to little (if any) of the work in question. For every skeptic who employs some or all of the objections listed above, it’s seldom acknowledged that the same band singing about necromancers and the Tobes of Hades went on to address decidedly un-prog issues ranging from AIDS (“Nobody’s Hero”), to bullying (“Subdivisions”), to suicide (“The Pass”). In fact, it may be the persistent positivity (of the band; of its material) that rankles the cynics and naysayers more than anything else.

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/170071-time-stand-still-why-rush-belongs-in-the-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame/

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Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’

How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112”.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

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Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece (Revisited)

Every band, if they are lucky, is able to create a definitive work—a document that embodies their unique qualities. Most great bands, at some point in their career, successfully produce an enduring statement. Some artists, like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, are able to capture—or create—the Zeitgeist on more than one occasion On the other hand; there are plenty of worthwhile and beloved bands who have never quite been capable of distilling the necessary ingredients of a classic recording. Finally, there are those almost unfathomable works that only a handful of bands can claim credit for. These exceptional albums are wholly original yet fully accessible and remain influential and imitated long after their release.

Moving Pictures is, without any question, not only Rush’s masterpiece, but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It represents both a culmination and a progression: the peak of the band’s development as well as the blueprint for Rush’s subsequent work. More, it is a template of sorts for the way rock albums were made in the early ‘80s.

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems inevitable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, inevitable. There is also a palpable sense of confidence infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

Moving Pictures is the first (and, most fans would concede, the last) time the band produced a record that fulfills not only the band’s considerable purpose and potential, but stands on its own as the consummate Rush album, and one of the great rock albums. There is not a second of wasted or ill-spent space to be found: each moment contributes to the individual songs which add up to an ideally programmed and cohesive statement. It is impossible to imagine an alternate running order; it flows but does not ebb and never builds to a climax because the entire album functions as a continuous epiphany.

Considering other albums that would make the short list for all-time status, it is difficult to isolate ones that don’t have a weak link or a song that, no matter its merit, sounds slightly out of place. For an example of the former, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper has some fluff (“Lovely Rita”) and the almost-immaculate Abbey Road has the love-it-or-hate-it “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the (almost) universally reviled “Octopus’s Garden”. For an example of the latter, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is quite difficult to quibble with on any level, but “Money” has always seemed like the song that could—or should—have been released as a single. There are probably many other excellent examples, just as there likely more than a few rock music aficionados who would insist there is no such thing as perfection, much less a perfect album. Finally, as previously discussed, perfection and how to define it is, at best, a dicey and ultimately futile endeavor. Put another way: who cares? Do we need to debate the parameters of a perfect album or, worse still, which albums are “more perfect” than others? Ultimately, all that matters is why the music works and why it warrants consideration.

One of the few words more loaded and problematic than perfect is timeless. Moving Pictures definitely sounds like it was made in the early ‘80s (the opening seconds of “Tom Sawyer” practically scream “meet the new boss!” and the new boss, circa 1981, was a synthesizer), but it manages to sound unsullied and exhilarating thirty years later. And not for nothing does it represent the first time Rush’s music was fully accessible. For instance, there is no getting around the fact that Geddy Lee’s vocals are…more restrained. Throughout Moving Pictures his upper register (lovingly or loathingly referred to as his “shriek”) is conspicuously not a factor in the equation. Coincidentally, or not, it is the songs on this album that even professed haters of the band can tolerate and acknowledge.

For the millions of converted, Moving Pictures is sui generis; one of the pivotal components belonging on any Mount Rushmore of modern rock. Why? Is it the fact that, despite a very solid second half, the first four songs comprise one of the ultimate side ones (remember those?) in all of popular music? Is it the way these songs were, arguably, the first by Rush you could imagine listening to in your car, during the day, with other people present? Is it because this was the first time everything connected, from the music and lyrics to the cover art to the almost unbelievable fact that several of the songs could (and did) receive significant radio play? Is it because, at long last, after making so many albums—no matter how unique and convincing—Moving Pictures indicates the first time there was no discernible influence of other bands? All of these questions can unequivocally be answered in the affirmative. After Moving Pictures Rush was, finally, a band that other bands would begin to emulate and envy. And three full decades after its release, the songs themselves make the strongest case for their significance.

“Tom Sawyer”, of course, is the signature tune (of this album and in the band’s catalog); the song that single-handedly transformed Rush from cult heroes to mainstream act. It remains a crowd-favorite in their concerts and epitomizes the unique appeal of the band itself. Featuring words (co-written with Max Webster lyricist Pye Dubois) that are evocative but, in the end, somewhat opaque, the song invites multiple interpretations. By name-checking Mark Twain’s famous rebel and giving him a cold war sensibility, Rush were now officially adults making music that could resonate with a younger as well as a mature audience. They also pulled off the improbable trick of creating a successful, if inscrutable song after being criticized for making too-obvious and obscure music. As a rallying cry for individualism (something Peart would specialize in for the next several albums) that has more to do with resistance than cynicism, “Tom Sawyer” is in many regards the penultimate ‘80s anthem. The astute observation that “changes aren’t permanent, but change is” could aptly summarize the four-decade trajectory of the band.

“Red Barchetta”, an adrenaline rush set to music, is less about the lyrics (inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive”) than about the feeling. This is another example of the band’s evolution and increased confidence: they are now able to harness and convey the same type of emotion and effect that they spent an entire album side developing and condense it into six minutes. Listening to anything before Permanent Waves, it would have frankly been improbable to anticipate Rush creating a song like this. And as much as any of the tracks on Moving Pictures, “Red Barchetta” is one you can imagine the nerds, jocks and stoners (to sardonically pick three random stereotypes) all breaking out the air guitars for.

“YYZ”, the title a tribute to the identification code for Toronto International airport, is another fan favorite and fixture in their live set. This instrumental is likely the song that initially caused scales to fall from the eyes of sleeping listeners and critics. Again, little if anything the band had achieved to this point could have prepared anyone for the dexterity and flair Rush could now conjure up, seemingly at will. The playful interaction—a “dueling banjos” of sorts—between the bass and drums signifies another unique element the band had added to its arsenal: their virtuosity is unabashed, almost celebratory, but the humor and mirth are now unmistakable; this is a band having fun. Then there is Lifeson’s short but scorching guitar solo that sounds less like a nod than a gauntlet being thrown at the feet of Eddie Van Halen, the then-reigning guitar god.

“Limelight”, while not quite as universally worshipped as “Tom Sawyer”, is arguably Rush’s most important song to this point. At a time when the band was poised to break through in momentous fashion, Peart writes the ultimate ode to independence from inside the glare of the “fish eye lens”. Peart articulates his growing alienation with the dubious trappings of fame, which he largely considered intrusions on his personal space. At the same time he crafts a manifesto of sorts for the persona he would cultivate over the ensuing decades: the brilliant, aloof and uncompromising icon in one of the world’s most popular bands. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend” is a line that continues to cause controversy all these years later, but Peart was writing from the heart, and he needed to convey that message. His wariness, of course, was justified, since the fans who complain the loudest about lyrics like these are often the people for whom they were intended.

Did someone say sci-fi and fantasy? The two prominent allusions on Moving Pictures are from Shakespeare (“all the world’s a stage”, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It—which was also utilized as the title for their first live album) and novelist John Dos Passos (“The Camera Eye”; Dos Passos would be referenced again on “The Big Money” from 1985’s Power Windows). In fact, the outward glance and engagement with the so-called real world Rush demonstrated on Permanent Waves is further fleshed out all through Moving Pictures. “The Camera Eye” (the last time the band would record a song lasting more than ten minutes) updates the macro view of ecological concerns from “Natural Science” and focuses on the uneasy harmony of frenzied urban existence. A recurring theme on both Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures—and one that would resurface in most of their later work—is the struggle for human beings to connect in a hyper-modern society.

“Witch Hunt”, while invoking the hysteria of both the Salem trials and the McCarthy hearings, functions as an austere reminder that “the more that things change, the more they stay the same”. Serving as the first installment of Peart’s trenchant “fear trilogy”, the messages from “Witch Hunt” endure in large part because successive generations remain incapable of learning from the past. Condemning the mob mentality that vindicates violence, Peart laments that “ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…” Rush, as previously noted, had gradually cultivated the status of a band that could endorse individuality and advocate for the underdog. Now, Peart was introducing a sociopolitical element into his lyrics, and Rush would increasingly give voice to an ongoing critique of the apathy and avarice that sustain the status quo.

Last, but definitely not least, is the ideal album closer that keeps one foot in the present and the other stepping audaciously into the future, “Vital Signs”. Although arguably the least “popular” song on Moving Pictures, it remains, in some ways, the most impressive or at least multi-faceted. As Peart has noted, this song was the result of Rush’s penchant for attempting to create one semi-spontaneous, studio-created piece per album. It is (literally) forward-looking in its playful use of what Peart called “Technospeak”. The lyrics, which mention “short circuits” “crossed signals” and “warm memory chip(s)”, are not a catalog of trendy terms so much as an ingenious commentary on how humans were (and would) increasingly becoming machine-like. If anything, Peart’s reflections seem prescient considering the ways our electronic “toys” have become indispensable parts of our daily routine. “Everybody got mixed feelings about the function and the form,” he observes with neither complaint nor approval. The proposition, which remains an unassailable call to arms for artists and fans alike, is attempting to “elevate from the norm”. Most striking is the actual sound the band achieves, which certainly anticipates the direction they would head for the next several years. “Vital Signs” recalls the reggae rhythms first heard in “The Spirit of Radio”, but also incorporates the more central role the synthesizer would play (for this song the perfect message of music and lyrics). Also, and most astonishing, this song manages to rock and groove: Rush, the whitest band in the history of music, is convincingly funky here.

Moving Pictures is, in every regard, a “quantum leap forward” where new wave meets hard rock; the rarest of albums where all elements mesh together. Looking back, this postmodern period piece endures as a reflection of how intriguing music had begun to seem and sound at the beginning of the ‘80s. Rush would capitalize on this artistic momentum and continue to craft significant albums that helped define the sound of a decade.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/148647-drag-the-dream-into-existence-reassessing-rushs-masterpiece/P0

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Four (Revisited)

10. The Who, “Underture”

The Who were not a prog-rock band. While both Tommy and The Who Sell Out could—and should—be considered crucial touchstones that helped pave the way, Pete Townshend’s feet were always rooted too firmly on terra firma to do anything other than what he was doing, which was quite brilliant thank you very much. Nevertheless, the all-instrumental “Underture” which, along with the album-opening “Overture”, bookends the first two sides of Tommy, is in many ways a blueprint for what other bands would build on. It is rather unlike anything else in The Who’s catalog, both in terms of length and style. Moon and Entwistle are in typically torrential form (Moon’s playing on this track managed to prompt kudos from jazz legend Elvin Jones), and Townshend employs acoustic guitar dynamics he never equaled (or needed to) again. If a slash-and-burn could conceivably be described as subtle, that is what The Who accomplish on “Underture”: it is propulsive and furious, yet dark and exquisite. It would be impossible, and pointless, to try and pick a single song from a writer as prolific and influential as Townshend, but these ten minutes might represent the most undistorted evidence of his compositional genius and infectious imagination.

9. Pink Floyd, “Time”

There is a simple reason Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most talked-about and beloved albums in rock history: it is one of the best albums in rock history. Enough said, sort of. People tend to forget, if understandably, that it’s not as though Floyd waltzed into Abbey Road Studios with the knowledge that they were about to create a masterwork. Dark Side was the natural and inevitable progression of a path the band had been on since 1968, and many of the ideas and imagery they render so perfectly had already appeared, in brief snatches and bursts, on previous work. For this album Roger Waters finally figured out how to write meaningful, penetrating lyrics with an economy of words and maximum emotional import (few, if any in rock have improved upon his style). The band was focused and each individual track received their full attention as they explored the themes of madness, money and faith in modern society.

The track that manages to incorporate all these concerns and still address, seemingly everything, is “Time”. The verses, sung with harsh authority by Gilmour, assess (and assail) the concerns and tribulations that preoccupy each of us, while the choruses (rendered as mellow counterpoint by Rick Wright) are crooned, lulling you to sleep, kind of like life will do if you are not paying attention. Special mention must be made of Gilmour’s guitar solo: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail.

8. King Crimson, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”

First they borrowed Jon Anderson (to sing on Lizard); then they inherited Bill Bruford once the great drummer bowed out of Yes. But nothing Yes—or King Crimson for that matter—had done to this point could have anticipated “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (the title alone an eccentric ode to the creative path less traveled). Most of the work made during the prog-rock era can be described to some extent, especially when it is categorically dismissed as pretentious noodling. But this song (actually part one of two, and while part two is magnificent in its own way, that riff-laden workout is much more straightforward than the kitchen-sink sensibility of part one) is a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As ever, Robert Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussion stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The song travels from placid to ominous (the languid, building menace of Fripp’s entry manages to almost be frightening), and then, after the bird calls and an invocation of the Far East, the ultimate postmodern touch: urgent, scarcely audible voices (from a radio? movie?) are looped and spliced, becoming gibberish that somehow makes perfect sense. As the song winds down, courtesy of Muir’s ethereal glockenspiel, a gentle chime (like a grandfather clock) washes over and out, and you are left wondering what hit you.

7. Jethro Tull, “Thick As A Brick”

Jethro Tull were on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick As A Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick As A Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full forty-five minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Frontman/mastermind Ian Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring, and there are maybe a handful of lyricists who matched his output in terms of sustained quality and variety during this decade.

6. Rush, “2112”

Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing — an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians. “2112” remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs Of All Time: Part Two (Revisited)

20. King Crimson, “Red”

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the paradigm that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. Robert Fripp, who has never been boring or unoriginal, outdoes himself while John Wetton and Bill Bruford do some of their finest work as well. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”.

19. Pink Floyd, “Echoes”

Most everyone would agree that Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd the first (and last) band in space, but not as many people might appreciate that, if it were not for 1971’s Meddle, there would have been no Dark Side of the Moon. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group (a very positive development), forging an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound. The point that cannot be overemphasized is that “Echoes” is not so much an inspired product of its time as much as it is the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward with each successive effort. “Echoes” unfolds deliberately, with carefully structured precision. The merging of Gilmour and Wright’s voices—a harbinger of good things to come, although on “Time” Wright sings the choruses while Gilmour handles the verses—is appropriately mesmerizing, and the two remain uncannily in synch on their respective instruments. “Echoes” also signals a minor step forward for Waters lyrically (the major step would be the aforementioned, and unavoidable, Dark Side of the Moon.

18. Rush, “Natural Science”

If 2112 is the album Rush had to make, Permanent Waves is the work that paved the way for a new decade and the next (most successful) phase of their career. The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Tom Sawyer”, but it is, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siecle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

17. Yes, “Heart of the Sunrise”

As much as any other band, Yes epitomizes prog-rock, and as such, they are entitled to the praise as well as the disapproval that accrues from this (at times, dubious) honor. Certainly this band, with the possible exception of Rush, gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind that (like Rush) its musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have very played. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion; his mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from the fruitful era that produced their “holy trinity”, The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge. “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Jon Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but none of them pack as much emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, that it manages to delight—and even surprise—four decades on.

16. Jethro Tull, “Heavy Horses”

Meanwhile back in the year…1978? It’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they probably have never even heard this song. Of course, the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ’70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history. Back to basics? How about back to the 18th Century? That is the vibe Jethro Tull was emanating circa 1978. The band that dropped not one, but two single-song album suites had evolved into a proficient troupe of professionals that incorporated strings, lutes, fifes and harpsichords into their repertoire. To put it more plainly, the same years The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols were establishing a radically new and brazen rock aesthetic, Ian Anderson appeared on an album cover flanked by two Clydesdales. The title track is a typically literate—and unironic!—tribute to the working horses of England that, much like prog-rock, were soon to step aside, their demise having less to do with trends and tastemakers than technology.

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Deconstruction* (Revisited)

I.

Il n’y pas hors-texte.

Or, there is nothing outside the text.

If the names Barthes, Foucault and Saussure (for starters) mean nothing to you, it would be difficult to argue that you are missing much. And yet: in the autumn of 1992 I spent more time with these gentlemen than I did with actual, living people. You see, they were all literary theorists, and they were all dead. I arrived at grad school expecting to become more intimately acquainted with some of my favorite Russian authors and dive deeper into American literature.

This happened to be right around the time that Cultural Studies had infiltrated English departments with the fervor of a rotavirus. It is tempting to say I was unlucky in this regard; as it happened, I was also fortunate in ways I did—and did not—perceive at the time. To put it as plainly as possible, if the circumstances had been different, the likelihood that I would be writing these words right now is less than remote. I almost certainly would be, if I was lucky enough, a tenured professor. I also, most likely, would be well into my second decade crafting articles for scholarly journals that not even my friends would read, nor would I, being a good friend, want them to.

Long story short: after initially resisting the jargon, the unending analysis (which was initially like watching a Fellini movie on mushrooms) and the impenetrable pretension, I was, for a time, converted. Once the signifying pieces fell into place, I began to appreciate the maddening method of making molehills into mountains. Post-structuralism can quickly become a metaphysical cult, and once the scales fall from your eyes, you embrace the oddly cathartic notion that there will be a ceaseless stream of scales to be pulled off every day for the rest of your life.

As a result, like a soldier who has spent time on the front line, these experiences informed my subsequent relation to reality. Today, I carry deconstruction like a tool in my trunk anytime I need to change a flat tire in my critical acumen. For a while there I was not sure I would be able to read, much less write fiction ever again. Eventually, I learned how to think without seeing myself thinking, but it took many years to sluice all that onanism out of my system.

What are they after?

I came away from this experience mostly unsullied, intellectually speaking, and am glad for it (the experience and the lack of permanent damage). I came away convinced that, when it comes to art, theory and philosophical concerns certainly have an important place, but not at the expense of the work itself. Perhaps this is why, to this day, I find that actual writers compose the most insightful and convincing reviews and appraisals of fiction (and non-fiction, for the most part). Maybe, if I were to deconstruct my own line of thinking, I’m unintentionally (or purposefully) prejudicing my perspective as the more thoughtful, balanced one. Regardless, academia is, in its extremes, like any cult: it is usually worthwhile to avoid any group convinced they have figured out the secrets of the universe, particularly when the answers involve the creation of more, unnecessary questions.

II.

Toujours déjà.

What are we after?

From the moment my mother stopped living, everything that has happened can, of course, be measured along the continuum of before and after. But being alive, still, I now am unable to recall anything that happened before without some awareness that she is dead; that she will die. This happens in the abstract (the knowledge is there, which doesn’t change the memory, but it alters, however subtly, the process of remembering), but it also affects specific times and dates: I will recall an event from 1998 and some part of me thinks—or is simply aware in advance—how she will be gone in four years. An occasion from 2002 will prompt the troubling question: eight months left; she had no idea and neither did we. And so on.

It gets even more complicated during dreams. And that is only addressing the ones I remember, and the ones I remember remind me that most of us are dreaming constantly, endlessly, every night, creating screenplays and scenarios, concocting future stories while revisiting past mistakes or triumphs or slipping darkly through the glass into impossible escapades—the type that could only happen in heaven, or dreams, or else a Fellini movie.

In these dreams and in my memories my mother is always-already deceased. I am always-already predisposed to deal with her death, just like I can’t remember attending church without the eventual loss of faith, or my post-graduate studies without the abrupt decision to flee the ivory tower, or my ongoing quest to construct mysteries I might solve only through writing.

Mostly, perceiving existence through this lens applies to looking forward as well as looking backward. Knowing, ahead of time, how certain decisions or actions are likely to play out (based on experience, based on characters from books, based on intuition) obliges one to avoid clichés. This insight, a sort of prognostic radar, can be as paralyzing as it is liberating: you don’t want to make any moves that will contribute to a life someone else already lived, but you also don’t want to preclude the fortuity of chance. If you think too much you can outsmart the future, or else become Bartleby, preferring to do nothing in order to preserve the illusion of an unfettered free will.

III.

The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.

Czeslaw Milosz, one of the great artists of the last century, was both a poet and a professor. He could appreciate literature from both angles: the creation of it as a writer and the appreciation of it as a reader. Having seen some of the atrocity humankind was capable of during his lifetime, his work uses words to elegize, accuse and above all, to remember. His great obsession was doing his part to ensure that the suffering and the bravery and the cruelty were a little less possible to ignore and forget. His poetry, in part because of its brilliance but mostly because of its restraint, all but resists analysis: he knows what he is trying to say and you know what he is trying to say. It’s more than that; it’s always more than that. Like all the best poetry, the deceptively simple words are fraught with feeling and affect. You cannot, in short, deconstruct Czeslaw Milosz.

I came across a poem of his around 1993 that I strongly suspect would have affected me in a profound fashion whether I encountered it before or after grad school. It does, nevertheless, seem to epitomize—with astonishing clarity and conciseness—what miserable if well-meaning theorists spend chapters and careers agonizing to articulate half as well.

What I know of my laborious life: it was lived…

I don’t need to write memos and letters every morning.

Others will take over, always with the same hope,

The one we know is senseless and devote our lives to…

So the Earth endures, in every petty matter

And in the lives of men, irreversible.

And it seems a relief. To win? To lose?

What for, if the world will forget us anyway.

Poets and professors are ultimately in search of similar things: not necessarily the answers to specific questions but the process of discovering, and interrogating the things that perplex us. It is not the answers or even the questions but the act of investigating: that dissatisfaction; not an act of rebellion or defiance, but an appreciation and, ultimately, acceptance that we can’t know. We can never know but we must try.

This, it seems to a former altar boy and once-future scholar, is the most satisfactory elucidation of what impels us to learn and love and live.

*From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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2/1/12

2/1/12.

2112.

Get it?

Since none of us will be around a century from now to celebrate the official day all planets of the solar federation may rest easily with the knowledge that control has been assumed, today seems an appropriate occasion to bust out the air guitars.

I have tangled happily, lovingly, with this album’s legacy in the past. A full analysis can be found here. (But be careful, reading that could lead you here, which might in turn lead you here and down the rabbit hole you go…)

Highlights (or, depending upon your tolerance of ancient school prog-rock with a capital Pretense, low-lights) below:

It’s difficult to imagine how music might have sounded in the ‘70s and, by extension, today, if Rush had not made 2112. If Rush had never made 2112, they certainly would never have had the opportunity to make their masterpiece, Moving Pictures. While few bands can boast about creating two genre-defining statements, the reality—almost impossible to believe today—is that Rush almost never got the chance to make the first one.

Considering the first, 2112, led to the next, Moving Pictures, it makes plenty of sense for Eagle Rock’s Classic Albums to focus on both as the alpha and omega of Rush’s slow (and in hindsight, inevitable) ascension to superstardom. Rock fans and Rush fanatics could, and perhaps should, immediately ask why each album does not merit its own feature. It’s a fair question, and the simple answer is that they do. But the 50-minutes of bonus material mitigates the concerns and, in a sense, each album is ultimately given about an hour of loving examination.

For anyone not familiar with the Classic Albums series, the segments feature interviews and input from actual band members, which makes them equal parts compelling and imperative acquisitions for casual as well as hardcore fans. This one begins, appropriately, at the beginning, when bassist/singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson are teenagers in the Great White North, emulating late ‘60s legends like Cream and Led Zeppelin. Along with original drummer John Rutsey (who later left the band due to health reasons, which were exacerbated by concerns of an exhaustive touring schedule), the band released their eponymous debut on their own label, and it may have disappeared into the Great White Nowhere, except a disc jockey in Cleveland (that great rock and roll city!) began playing it. After Rutsey exited, stage left, the band fortuitously auditioned an unknown Neil Peart, who became principal lyricist and eventually established himself as the premier drummer on the planet.

Rush’s follow-up, Fly By Night, fared well but their ambitious third album, Caress of Steel sold poorly. After an endless and thoroughly depressing series of gigs, which they not so fondly referred to as the “down the tubes” tour, there was genuine concern that their label might drop them. At this point, as Lifeson recalls, “there were one of two directions (to go): give in to the pressure or go for it.” The band all agreed that despite admonishments (and/or insistence) that they create a commercial-minded, radio-friendly effort, they were going to do it their way and feel good about it, no matter what the outcome.

After putting the finishing touches on their fourth album the band, and producer Terry Brown, strongly suspected that they’d captured something special. They were right. 2112 went straight to #1 in Canada and broke into the Top 75 in the US. Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The band, and Brown, reminisces about the music, how it was created, and the way(s) it was received. The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing — an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians.

Curiously, the songs “Tears” and “Lessons” are skipped, although some welcome time is spent on the lighthearted ode to herb, “A Passage To Bangkok”. Likewise, the dated but not quite embarrassing “Twilight Zone” (which manages, all these years later, to sound almost charming in its way) is discussed while actual clips from the episodes referenced in the verses are shown. 2112 remains important as much for what it enabled as for what it did: it is no exaggeration to claim that we would never have gotten to Moving Pictures without it. The band agrees with the assessment that 2112 was the effort where they found their sound which they perfected over the course of their next several albums.

2112 remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

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